As Moscow’s master plan for Ukraine continued to unfold, Russian forces Saturday, March 1, staged their first attack on a Ukraine military installation in Crimea, while completing their takeover of the region and its severance from Ukraine. Interfax reported from a Ukrainian source that 20 soldiers had entered an anti-aircraft missile command post in western Crimea and that negotiations rather than a clash were under way.
Earlier Saturday, Crimea's new pro-Moscow prime minister Serhiy Aksyonov asked President Vladimir Putin for help in “maintaining peace in the region,” saying he was in control of the region’s interior ministry, armed forces, fleet and border guards.
The invitation set the scene for Russian military intervention in Crimea at the request of its government. Moscow said the appeal would not go “unnoticed," while the Russian foreign ministry declared itself “extremely concerned” by developments in Crimea – cynically echoing US President Barack Obama’s expression Friday of “deep concern” about Russian military movements inside Ukraine and his warning of “costs.”
The Crimean premier, appointed Thursday by parliament in Simferopol, later announced that a referendum would be held on March 30 to determine the peninsula’s status. Meanwhile, he said, Russian Black Sea fleet servicemen were guarding important buildings.
In Kiev, interim defense minister Igor Tenyukh, addressing the first new cabinet’s first meeting, accused Russia of an armed invasion of Ukraine and pouring an additional 6,000 troops into the peninsula. Western correspondents reported that Crimea is now cut off from the rest of Ukraine after “unidentified troops” in combat fatigues, armed with automatic rifles, machine guns or RPGs, seized control of Crimea’s sea and air ports and its main road network in the last 24 hours.
Interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk told the Kiev cabinet that Ukraine forces were on alert, but he would not be ”drawn into a military conflict by Russian provocations in the Crimea region.”
debkafile’s military sources report that this announcement was hollow.
The 160,000-strong Ukrainian army is no match for the Russian army’s operational capabilities and fire power, although it too is equipped with Russian weapons and trained in Russian military tactics.
But above all, it is far from certain that the new authorities in Kiev control the Ukraine army. No one knows where the loyalties of its officers lie, whether with the new pro-European regime or the absconding pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
This confronts the troubled country with a fresh peril, a possible army putsch to oust the interim regime set up by the Ukraine opposition in Kiev, and its replacement with a military government for containing continuing Russian expansion beyond the borders of Crimea. The former Independence Square protesters would have no answer to this.
Moscow, while insisting that its military actions were not an invasion but a legal bid to protect its interests, has also moved to offset any financial assistance the West may offer Kiev. Russia's energy giant Gazprom bluntly warned Kiev that it had accumulated a "huge" debt of $1.5 billion for natural gas that needed to be urgently paid if the supply is to continue.
This is the exact amount of the loan guarantees the US and EU propose to offer the stony-broke Kiev authorities.
Along with US warnings to Moscow, a high alert was secretly declared Saturday by the US Mediterranean Sixth Fleet. Two US warships which had been deployed in the Black Sea to back up Russian security for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi – the USS Taylor Frigate and the USS Mount Whitney Blue Ridge-class command ship – have moved over to the western side of the Black Sea opposite Crimea and facing the Russian navy base of Sevastopol.
The Mount Whitney is outfitted with sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems. Its current location means that ongoing Russian military movements across central, southern and western Russia, around its borders with Ukraine and inside the Crimean peninsula, are being monitored and beamed to the White House and the Pentagon. Obama’s response is anyone’s guess. So far, the only hints thrown out are that Western leaders are planning a boycott of the G8 summit Putin plans to host in Sochi this summer, in protest against Russia’s takeover of Crimea.